What Lies Ahead for Obama's Countering Violent Extremism Program?

President Barack Obama speaks at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism at the State Department in February 2015. President Barack Obama speaks at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism at the State Department in February 2015. Carolyn Kaster/AP file photo

For the last six years, the U.S government has pushed resources toward a set of programs called Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE: grants to community organizations, U.S. attorneys’ offices, and police departments designed to derail people “at risk” of engaging in terrorism. Civil-liberties groups have long argued that CVE is based on false premises: Ideology is not a clear predictor of terrorism, they say, and there is no “pathway” to committing violence. Muslim groups have also worried that the program is a means of surveilling and arresting members of their communities, despite the Obama administration’s assurances otherwise. 

New documents obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests by the Brennan Center for Justice suggest these fears were well-founded. In an internal memo, officials at the FBI—one of the main agencies involved in CVE—acknowledged that engagement with radical ideas is not a clear predictor of terrorist acts. And in another document, the Bureau described CVE as a means of strengthening its “investigative [and] intelligence gathering” abilities, which seems to contradict the Obama administration’s claims that CVE is not about law enforcement.

These findings are just the latest evidence in a wave of critiques of the program, which have come from both the left and the right. With the Trump administration eyeing CVE for potential rebranding or elimination, civil-liberties advocates may ironically get their wish to see the end of the program. But if it’s replaced with increased efforts to target American Muslim communities with law enforcement, they may not like what comes next.

The Brennan Center report lays out two major arguments that are now standard among CVE critics in on the left. The first counters the idea that ideology is the main motivation for terrorism. “All empirical research shows that ideology is not the driver of terrorism—it has lots of different drivers and is hard to predict,” said Faiza Patel, the co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center.

The FBI appears agrees with this, at least to a certain extent. In 2011, the Bureau conducted a study of the alleged increase in plots against the U.S. after 2006, according to a document obtained by Brennan through a FOIA request. One factor the FBI studied was the influence of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born extremist who circulated widely viewed sermons online before he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011. “It is difficult to quantify the degree to which Islamist materials and ideologues—such as [al-Awlaki] … played a part in the radicalization of the persons included in this assessment,” the FBI wrote. “Factors outside the scope of this assessment—such as social environment and personal psychology ... were also influential.”

Despite this kind of evidence, “there remains within our government and policymaking circles, even among Democrats and so-called progressives, this notion that there’s this poisonous ideology and we’ve got to do something to do deal with [it],” said Patel. “Yes, there are these terrible ideas out there. But our function as a government is not to suppress ideas, but actually to deal with violence.”

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